Black History: Where to Begin?


JyarlandBy Jyarland Daniels, executive director of Harriet Speaks

My inbox usually contains questions from friends (and strangers) about things related to race. Today was no exception. This question, from a friend (a white woman) who I have known since childhood, reminded me why the Universe has called me to teach to the best of my ability. Here is the inbox message (shared with permission):

I’m asking this question because you are one of the most well read people I know – especially of your own culture. I’d like to spend this month getting to know the story of at least one Black person that has contributed to the goal of change. Now, I’d prefer it not be the mainstream celebrated figures. That’s too easy. And I don’t need a book reference unless you just happen to know one you WANT me to get into. I have no problem doing research and following that path. It’s part of why I enjoy historical fiction. It inspires me to get into the ditches and find my own truth. I could go online and easily find a random book. But I wanted to get to know someone who inspires you and get a new insight or deeper appreciation of one of the strongest, most driven women I know and who keeps my compass going forward. That would be you my friend — in case you were looking around trying to figure out who I was talking about. 
I could barely contain my excitement and eagerness to respond. I quickly made two recommendations to my friend, and I might make the same recommendations for those who enjoy historical fiction and are making a sincere effort to learn about Black history. I recommended, The Warmth of Other Suns and The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks. The reasons I recommended them might be of interest to others.

Many gravitate towards historical fiction because of the power of storytelling. However, we have to be careful with historical fiction because of the difficulties in separating fact from fiction. Making the distinction between fact and fiction without having a background of the period and deep knowledge of the subject can be a daunting task. While there are excellent historical fiction writers, for the purpose of developing an understanding of Black history, I will always prefer non-fiction that is written by an excellent storyteller. Isabel Wilkerson and Jeanne Theoharris are master storytellers who will captivate their readers while providing important historical context.
In the current political environment the term “refugee” is one we hear with increasing frequency. However, many of us have not made the connection that not too long ago Black people were refugees in the very country built by the sweat, tears and free labor provided by their ancestors. This, at its most basic level, is what the northern migration was. The story of these Black Americans fleeing from the constant threat of death and violence in the Jim Crow south should be placed with the context of refugees, and given the same level of compassion we reserve for refugees. Isabel Wilkerson tells us that those who are a part of the great migration went on to accomplish great things and become a critical part of the contributions descendants of slaves would make to the United States in many areas, but we should understand they were fleeing from conditions in their own country.
I then shifted to my second recommendation, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks. My friend shared that she is currently teaching her four year-old about Rosa Parks (yay!). My advice was if she was going to be teaching her daughter about Rosa Parks then it would be enlightening for Mom to simultaneously read an adult book about Rosa Parks. This would allow her to see how the legacy and narrative of what we have been taught about Mrs. Parks has been diluted. Because the truth is Mother Parks, was as radical as they come. Author Jeanne Theoharris expertly moves us past the notion that Mrs. Parks was a docile elderly woman who was simply tired that day she refused to give up her seat. Understanding how, why, and the extent to which the inaccurate characterization of Black activists occurs (as we become further removed from the period in which they lived), is critical to developing a lens for understanding the black struggle and those who participated in it. It is also important to developing the skills to challenge dominant narratives.
There was another reason that I was happy to recommend The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks. Author Jeanne Theoharris is a white woman. That this transformative book about the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement” was written by a white woman shows us that white people have a role to play in correcting the historical record. Accurate knowledge about all history, and Black history is no exception, is the responsibility of all of us.
I stand firm in my belief that Black History Month is not purely about celebrations. It is about learning and questioning what you have learned on the topic. It is about dealing even with the painful truths. We need more people to commit to doing this kind of work in order to be on the road to a radical reconciliation in this country – the kind of reconciliation that requires being uncomfortable and working towards change. So, happy reading to my dear friend and her daughter!
Be sure to learn more about Harriet Speaks! #HarrietSpeaks #BlackHistory

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